Sunday, August 06, 2023


Taking a quick break from the series of Kohelet posts, for an investigation of a special word: sandak סַנְדָּק. Our daughter just gave birth to our first grandchild, and this past Shabbat, I had the privilege of being the sandak at his brit milah - meaning he was placed on my lap during the ceremony. 

It was one of the most special moments of my life, so I thought it deserved a post. 

The word sandak doesn't look Hebrew, and indeed isn't. Here are Klein's definition and etymology:

סַנְדָּק m.n. MH    ‘sandak’, godfather, one who holds the child on his knees for circumcision).  [Either from Gk. synteknos (= foster brother; lit.: ‘a child growing up with another’), or from Gk. syndikos (= one who helps in a court of justice, advocate).

These are certainly the most popular etymologies I found online. The second theory he presents, that sandak  is an advocate, is easily recognized from the origin of the English word "syndicate" ( a "council or body of representatives"). It comes from an earlier word, "syndic", with this origin:

c. 1600, "a civil magistrate, especially in Geneva," from French syndic "chief representative" (14c.), from Late Latin syndicus "representative of a group or town," from Greek syndikos "public advocate," as an adjective, "belonging jointly to," from syn- "together"  + dike "judgment, justice, usage, custom" 
The first theory that Klein offers actually fits the meaning of sandak somewhat better. It doesn't have  obvious English cognates. Like syndicate, it is comprised of syn ("together"), but the second half is téknon - Greek for "child." (The closest cognate to an English word - and this is pretty distant is "thane", but I had never heard of it before.) So synteknos  would be translated as "companion of (literally, "with") a child." 

However, there's a problem with both of these suggestions. The term sandak doesn't appear in rabbinic Hebrew until the Middle Ages, which is strange for a role in such an important religious ceremony. Philologos in this 2006 column after quoting both theories that Klein mentioned, notes:

Although circumcision is probably the most ancient of all the Jewish rites that are practiced today, neither of these two words is anywhere near as venerable. The older of the two, sandak, is a Hebrew loan word from Greek, as easily can be seen from its earliest appearance in Jewish sources in the 13th-century midrashic anthology Yalkut Shimoni, where it occurs as sandakos, with the Greek first-declension, nominative-case singular ending. This is curious, since nearly all Greek borrowings in old Hebrew date to the pre-Islamic period, when Greek was the spoken language of the eastern Mediterranean world.

Presumably, then, sandakos was in use among Jews for hundreds of years before this but simply left no record.

He goes on to focus more about the origin of kvater, a Yiddish word also associated with the brit milah. Today it means one of the people carrying the baby from the mother to the sandak. But originally it simply meant "godfather" and was may have been synonymous with the sandak. (In fact, kvater is simply a Yiddish version of the German gevatter, which like the Latin parallel compater meant "joint father". While the sources I found say that godfather comes from God+father in English, I can't help but wonder if it really just derived from the Old English version of gevatter - gefædera - and the later spelling Godfather was just the result of a folk etymology to give it religious meaning. But let's get back to sandak...)

It's noteworthy that Philologos wrote his column in 2006. In the following year, Prof. Hillel Newman of the University of Haifa, published an essay in the Jewish Quarterly Review entitled, "Sandak and Godparent in Midrash and Medieval Practice." (Thank you to Elon Gilad who shared that article with me, along with his Hebrew summary published two years ago in HaAretz.)

Newman presents the two etymologies we've discussed, along with others, but doesn't feel comfortable with any of them. The article goes very deep into the history, and it's worth a read. But to summarize, he points to the the midrashic origin of the term sandak in Midrash Tehillim (also quoted in a slightly different form in Yalkut Shimoni). It's a beautiful midrash, showing how all parts of the body are used to serve God. The relevant line for our purposes describes the knees:

בברכיי אני נעשה סינדיקנוס לילדים הנימולים על ברכיי

"With my knees I become a syndikenos for the children circumcised on my knees."

After much deliberation, with extensive comparison of various sources in midrash and Medieval Jewish literature, Newman ends up convinced that the correct version of the midrash should not be "I become a a sandak" but rather "I make a sandak" (relying on versions that use the verb עושה instead of נעשה).

Based on this, he suggests that we shouldn't be looking at the original meaning of sandak as a type of person, but rather a thing that the person makes. He offers the Greek word σάνδυξ ("sandux"), meaning "chest, casket, box." He writes:

As it turns out, it is not difficult to find a satisfactory lexical solution to the problem if we unburden ourselves of our old semantic prejudice. To put it simply, we are looking for a word, probably Greek, which could be transcribed into Hebrew as סנדיקוס and which satisfies the sense of the passage: a word for something which one might either do or form with one’s knees or lap to facilitate a child’s circumcision. [....] it is σάνδυξ  of Hesychius which is phonetically the closest to סנדיקוס of Yalkut Shim‘oni. The resulting image is of the body objectified, a picture of an adult cradling the infant on his or her lap during the circumcision in the manner of a vessel intended for holding one’s precious personal possessions. In this way, yet another part of the body is enlisted in performing the commandments.

This word meaning "crate, box" has cognates in an astonishing number of languages, including: Arabic sanduk (which has entered Hebrew slang with the same meaning as well), Russian sunduk, Persian sanduq, and many more. Almost all theories point to an ultimate Greek origin. The Arabic Etymological Dictionary says it comes from the Greek syndocheion (perhaps related to synecdoche - "receiving together"?). Others suggest suntíthēmi - "to place or put together", which would make it cognate with "synthesis."

Whatever the ultimate Greek etymology, I found the meaning "to make a cradle" for the baby incredibly moving (and this was certainly influenced by having finished reading his essay shortly before the brit.) In the past, I had used many of my body parts to perform the mitzvot as described in the midrash. But I had never used my knees in such a way. What an honor to do so for my beloved grandson.

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